Beethoven who?

The Battle of Ideas is a series of debates presented by the Institute of Ideas. One of the fiercest

Every child should learn about classical music

Do you want your children empowered to engage with the most enduring works of music? Are you bothered if that life-giving resource is being progressively discarded without consultation? When I was a student, there was a story, probably apocryphal, that Dudley Moore raised eyebrows when he went to Oxford as an organ student not knowing how many symphonies Beethoven wrote. Now it is unusual to find a new undergraduate who does know. It is, nonetheless, experience of art that is the issue - not cataloguing symphonies but acquiring the means to draw upon music as a listener.

Someone who is handed the tools with which to tackle music and learns to love a single piece can then discover many others.

It is a shameful reflection on our priorities for the education of our children that these tools are often denied them.

What does social reform and democracy mean, if great art is withheld from the populace? The ancien regime that confined the artistic canon to a prosperous few has no place in our culture. Nothing could be more patronising than to decide for our young people that some art is "too highbrow" for them, perhaps because of their ethnic background or an unpromising urban environment. Yet that is exactly the thinking behind recent drives to orientate the GCSE syllabus towards music to which children can "relate".

The idea that the western artistic canon is not "relevant" in today's multicultural classroom need only be reversed to be exposed as ridiculous. Imagine decreeing that a class of white teenagers cannot relate to West African drumming. My daughter's school plays host this week to just such a workshop run by an English master drummer, and the kids can talk of nothing else. Without teaching, the drumming may seem complex or monotonous, but having been taught the basics, the art form opens out and they can take ownership. Now, reverse the cultures, bring in a string quartet from the outstanding Live Music Now! (Yehudi Menuhin's charity which takes young musicians to prisons, hospitals and schools) and introduce string quartets to a class from a non-western background. Then let them try Barber's Adagio and tell them it's not "relevant".

Consider how sport makes the same mockery of such prejudices: anyone suggesting that cricket is too protracted and complex for our youngsters would sound ludicrous.

A glance at curricular materials shows there is plenty of useful study of the classical canon on offer but because the totem of the moment is "participation", valuable historical knowledge is being dislocated from the works. The syllabus is a veritable Blue Peter of good things to do and make, yet this stress on practice needs balancing by a historical overview and by experience of the music. Guided listening is mistakenly thought to be passive, with a dollop of unfashionable imperialism about it. Teacher has to decree that Corelli or Copland is worth hearing. Meanwhile, as for the practicalities of reading music, the syllabus setters are clearly petrified that 15 year olds will stampede from the music room at the first glimpse of a crotchet.

Most of us animated by music owe our lifeblood to an individual who threw us Stravinsky's Le Sacre or Zappa's Hot Rats and said "you need this". Yet a teacher I know was warned by an educational adviser to steer clear of discussing actual music lest she "scare the kids with composers". I related this breathtaking story to another music adviser, and had to clutch for the table when she, in turn, outlined the official line to me as "trying to hold their interest at GCSE so you can teach them something at A-level".

What a culture of despair. Introducing thrilling and complex works from the canon isn't snobbery. It is empowerment. I bless the teacher who played us a recording of the Pathetique Symphony before taking us to hear Barbirolli conduct it. The idea that children are hostile to exploring things outside their ken is an adult one, born of the craven - or commercial - desire to ingratiate oneself. Young people - up for new stuff, remember? - don't expect their tunes to dominate the syllabus; frankly, it ceases to be "their" music once embarrassing adults wrap a syllabus around it. This is vicars strumming guitars all over again.

A Eurocentric canon of "classical" culture in classrooms of old inhibited our musical thought about much other music in our world. Yet so does today's reversed trend, which marginalises great art. Schumann's song-cycles of young love and despair should be there for every teenager, along with those of Kurt Cobain, for art belongs to everybody.

Piers Hellawell is composer and professor of composition at the Queen's University, Belfast

. . . it's an irrelevance, it didn't turn me into a fan

I really loved music when I was at school. Every morning we assembled before lessons to the sound of Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart. Sometimes the racier teachers would even slip in a bit of Vaughan Williams. I learnt the composers' names, and then learnt about their music in our weekly lessons. The trouble was, the music that I loved wasn't this music. I had two homophones with entirely different meanings.

1. Their Music: that stodgy stuff that our headmaster force-fed us in the assembly hall and in our deathly dull classrooms and;

2. My Music: the magical stuff that I spent every waking hour glued to the radio to seek out, and saving my pocket money for. I couldn't get enough of my music. It rocked my world and it's made me who I am. I liked all types, as long as it moved me and meant something real - Althea and Donna, Earth Wind and Fire, Syreeta, Steel Pulse, Ian Dury. Hell, I even liked the Stranglers.

With guidance from the likes of David Rodigan, Robbie Vincent, Greg Edwards and John Peel, I learnt the difference between quality and dreck, learnt to understand and chart the subtle evolution of the art - like the morphing of roots reggae into lovers' rock - and to appreciate all manner of good music. However, the implication of my teachers (who, bless them, didn't know the difference between Spizz Oil and Midnight Oil) was that their music was better, so I never heard the music I loved at school. No Stevie, just Schubert and simultaneous equations - learnt because I was told that they were important. Precisely why they were important has eluded me from that moment on.

Luckily, listening daily to their music didn't do me any harm. I grew up a cultured, well-adjusted music fan and my love of music led me to enter the profession. First as a musician, then as a record producer and after ten years in jazz, popular and so-called "world" music, I was lucky enough to be invited to be part of the team putting together the undergraduate music degree at Paul McCartney's Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts.

It was an amazing opportunity. We had a blank canvas on which to design a truly modern music course, so using the shape of a classical music conservatoire, we put together a list of "great popular works" which we would teach our highly talented students to understand, appreciate and play. Our chosen model was, we felt, correct. Conservatoires were in pole position, and had support from the Higher Education Funding Council to prove it.

So our budding Claptons, Enos and Bonhams spent their week in instrumental classes and lessons in harmony and form, and came together every Friday in ensembles where they'd perform note-perfect renditions of "Aja" by Steely Dan, "Sylvia" by Focus or Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody". Our students played wonderfully, so why did the feeling grow in the pit of my stomach, along with my colleagues, that our conservatoire model just wasn't working? Why weren't the musicians we produced coming up with ideas of their own? Where was their edge of creativity?

When we thought harder about it, we realised that virtually none of our favourite musical voices had gone to music college. The ones who entered tertiary education at all had gone to art school - from Chicks on Speed, through Pulp to Roxy Music, even the Beatles. If at LIPA we were trying to produce thinking musicians and songwriters, we concluded that exploration and artistic growth called for scepticism to the idea of a "canon" of great work, be it classical or popular. I'm ashamed to say students who paid attention and knuckled down turned out great, but only for cover bands or karaoke.

When I stopped working at LIPA, I came out wondering if this mismatch between classical music education and creativity extended past our popular music adaptation to musicians who wanted to create and play classical music itself. As we entered the 21st century, was classical music education producing artists to explore, and ultimately reshape culture? Or were they creating cultural guardians to defend a musical heritage and pay tribute to a great canon? Were orchestras becoming little more than tribute bands, playing cover versions of sacred works?

So if being exposed to a daily diet of classical music in schools didn't turn me into a classical music fan, and teaching music using classical music methods didn't help to turn out great contemporary musicians, where does that leave the classics today?

I'll concede that classical music is important cultural heritage, just please don't tell me that it's the only heritage or that it's my cultural heritage. My love for good art in whatever form has been largely borne of extra-curricular music education. As long as I appreciate art, recognise what the good stuff is, and support it, why should it matter that the classics mean nothing either to me, or hardly anyone today?

Andrew Missingham is director of the hub, an arts consultancy and event producer based in London

The Battle of Ideas is at the Royal College of Art, London SW7, 29-30 October. Ticket hotline: 020 7269 9220

This article first appeared in the 31 October 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Democracy and demons